Though the Air Force has continually reinforced its commitment to eliminating its reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 engine for space launches, Air Force Space Command boss Gen. John Hyten said he is not confident the process towards finding a replacement is adequate. “I can’t be confident that the RD-180’s been adequately addressed, because we don’t know the answer,” Hyten said Feb. 13 at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando. In terms of getting off of the RD-180 by the congressionally mandated FY19, “we’re going to do that,” Hyten said, but we don’t yet know how. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the Air Force is currently finalizing its acquisition strategy for the engine replacement. Nevertheless, Hyten said there will be no interruption in the US’ assured access to space. “There’s no doubt we have ways, we have options, we have different ways to make sure that happens,” Hyten said. Referencing the two times in the course of his career that the US has lost assured access to space—after the Challenger explosion in 1986 and after series of high-profile, expensive launch failures in the 1990s—Hyten said “both of those interrupted the national security of the United States, and we can never go down that road again.”
The F-35 Joint Program Office has officially announced plans to issue multiple sole-source contracts to Pratt & Whitney to upgrade the fighter’s F135 engine—a widely expected move after Pentagon officials indicated they would do so earlier this year instead of developing an entirely new engine.